Establishing consistency from start to start has eluded Chicago Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks.
The typically reliable Hendricks has endured a slow start to the 2022 season. One outing the veteran delivers a vintage performance, the next he struggles to get in a rhythm. Hendricks’ inconsistencies represent a microcosm of the Cubs rotation’s issues nearly five weeks into the season.
But when Hendricks, 32, is locked in, he remains one of the game’s best starters. Count his performance Monday night in San Diego as a classic Hendricks start.
He came one out away from his fifth career shutout in the Cubs’ 6-0 victory. In a dazzling effort, Hendricks limited the Padres to three hits in 8⅔ innings while walking one and striking out seven.
Hendricks talked manager David Ross into letting him go back out for the ninth after 99 pitches. Ross planned to let Hendricks face the first three Padres hitters, with reliever Scott Effross warming up to be ready to face Manny Machado. But a seven-pitch, one-out walk to Jake Cronenworth prevented Hendricks from going the distance.
Hendricks said he started to tire a little after striking out Jose Azocar to begin the ninth.
“I can’t walk somebody (up) 6-0 right there,” Hendricks said. “(Ross) knows that, I know that. He’s got all the trust in the world in me and I appreciate it so much.”
Hendricks became the first Cubs starter to pitch into the eighth inning this year and nearly was the first to throw a shutout since Alec Mills’ no-hitter on Sept. 13, 2020.
Hendricks threw 116 pitches, the third-highest count of his career. The only two games he threw more came in 2016: 123 pitches in a shutout versus the Miami Marlins and 117 in a win in Cincinnati.
“You never want to come out no matter what it is, but I also didn’t realize how high my pitch count was,” Hendricks said. “It’s good to get to see some of the results from the good pitches. But again, that can’t be the focus. I’ve got to establish what I’ve been doing and try to carry that over to the next start.”
Hendricks credited catcher Yan Gomes’ pitch sequencing early in the game and generating bad swings for helping him build confidence. He executed the plan and limited damage, the latter of which the righty hasn’t always navigated well this year.
He neutralized the Padres by effectively mixing in his curveball enough to enhance his changeup (10 whiffs) and four-seam fastball (four whiffs and 10 called strikes).
“The thing with Kyle is he’s one of the elite pitchers in the game, so guys are going to try to make adjustments,” Gomes said. “He’s probably got one of the best changeups you’ll see whether it’s to righties (or) lefties, which is usually not a common thing.
“So guys are going to make adjustments to him, and right now it’s just up to him to try to catch up to that side. I think you’re starting to see him get a little bit more comfortable and starting to trust all his pitches.”
For the Cubs to be competitive, they need Hendricks as a consistent, reliable force in the rotation. Stringing together consecutive quality starts is imperative. His last two outings suggest he is on the right track and creating momentum in May. The Cubs can feed off Hendricks when he gets rolling.
“Seeing the way he works both sides of the plate and the movement on his pitches and just the mastery of his craft he has, it’s really special,” shortstop Nico Hoerner said. “The way that he pitches is not common in this game anymore and it’s amazing to see a guy that has mastered his craft. A pitcher that is getting early contact and has a good tempo and all that, it’s incredibly fun to play behind.”
Right fielder Seiya Suzuki avoided a serious injury after exiting in the bottom of the sixth because of right ankle soreness. He awkwardly stepped on first base in the fifth while trying to beat out his double-play ball that scored a run to put the Cubs ahead 3-0.
The trainer told Ross that Suzuki’s ankle ailment was “nothing major,” and Suzuki said his ankle felt fine after the game. He initially was back in the lineup Tuesday in his usual No. 2 spot as the designated hitter, but the Cubs scratched him about 75 minutes before first pitch because of lingering soreness. He was available off the bench Tuesday.
“I just wanted to be aggressive there and try to be safe to get that run in,” Suzuki said of the play through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “In that case you want to be careful, but my feelings are stronger to be safe there.
“You want to play the whole game, but I felt that it was going to affect the team negatively if I kept on playing so I decided to come out of the game.”